Randall Hill / Reuters / Landov

After Charleston, Black pastors weigh in on gun rights, control

Some pastors say history 'repeated itself' on Wednesday when slain pastor did not allow congregants to bear arms

The leaders of some black faith communities are divided on the right to bear arms in the wake of the fatal shooting at a historic church Charleston, South Carolina, with some saying congregants should have been encouraged to take protective weapons to church. 

The Rev. William H. Lamar IV, pastor of Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church of Washington, D.C., spoke out for greater gun control. “When America makes violence, it begets more violence,” Lamar told Al Jazeera on Friday.

“America is locked in that narrative,” he said. “You cannot help but call this a continuation of the violence against black bodies that started that beginning. This is the destruction of Rosewood, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, the lynchings all recapitulated.”

But Rev. Kenneth Blanchard, a prominent advocate of gun rights and black American civil rights in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, joined others Friday in saying that the Rev. Clementa Pinckney — who was gunned down with eight others in an apparent hate crime at Charleston’s historic Emanuel AME Church this week — could have prevented the massacre if he would have encouraged worshippers to bear arms.

“If you have somebody of great moral character, as a pastor is supposed to be, that person should be trusted to have a firearm,” Blanchard said. “You have to have your ploughshare and your sword on the wall.”

The differing opinions reflect a growing trend in black American communities, some of which may be less resolutely opposed to gun ownership than in previous years. In December 2014, 54 percent of black Americans interviewed by Pew Research Center said guns protect people "from being crime victims" — nearly double the percentage recorded two years earlier.

Blanchard’s comments on the Charleston shooting echoed some of the opinions expressed by Second Amendment advocates including the Gun Owners of America and National Rifle Association (NRA) board member Charles Cotton, who on Friday said Pinckney — who was also a state senator and consistently voted for gun control measures — could have prevented some if not all of the murders if he had encouraged his flock to arm themselves in their place of worship. 

Months before his death, Pinckney delivered a sermon at a YWCA event in April, titled “Requiem on Racism,” in which he said that love alone could end the problem. “Irregardless of our faiths, our ethnicities, where we are from, together we come in love,” he said. “Together we come to bury racism, to bury bigotry, and to resurrect and revive love, compassion and tenderness.” 

The NRA’s Cotton critiqued Pinckney in an online forum for having voted against concealed carry laws as a state senator. “Eight of his church members who might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead. Innocent people died because of his position on a political issue,” Cotton wrote on a Web forum on firearms. 

For Blanchard, the shooting at Emanuel AME Church Wednesday repeated elements of the church’s antebellum past. 

In 1822, George Wilson, a church member of the AME Church who believed in Christian non-violence, informed his slave master of a plot by church leader Denmark Vesey to mount a slave rebellion against whites in Charleston. Vesey was executed shortly thereafter, and the slaves were only freed decades later in the bloodshed of the Civil War.

“This history has repeated itself and has continued to do so,” Blanchard said. 

Although he mourns Pinckney, Blanchard said that like in Wilson’s case, a misinterpretation of the Christian principle of non-violence — even at the cost of self-defense — cost community members their lives.

“The pastor, as the shepherd [of his congregation], should have been the one who was armed,” Blanchard said. “If you are going to lead the sheep, you need to defend them.”   

In the Emanuel AME Church’s early history with Vesey’s would-be rebellion, “extreme measures were taken because slavery was a horrible evil,” said Bishop E.W. Jackson, who leads the Exodus Faith Ministries in Boston and Chesapeake, Virginia. Massacres like Wednesday’s meet that threshold, Jackson said: “People sometimes need to respond [to extreme circumstances] with extreme measures,” he said.

For Blanchard, the need for black Americans to bear arms stems from what he says is a lack of real change — in the South and across the country — since the days of Vesey and Wilson.

“I think the biggest issue is that we listen to the wrong people,” he said. “We listen to [the Rev. Al] Sharpton and [the Rev. Jesse] Jackson, who make a business out of manipulating both sides. When they go to an event they have bodyguards. They have people like me who might be armed while they preach” against arms.

But for Bishop Jackson, crimes like the Charleston shooting are not about race. “There may be some nutcases out there, but there is a consensus this kid was wrong,” he said, referring to 21-year-old shooting suspect Dylann Roof, who was pictured on his Facebook account wearing the flags of apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

“The deeper problem is sin,” Jackson said, explaining that the only systemic factor behind the shooting is the act of hate that also leads to non-race-based crimes like “East and West Coast rappers killing each other over music. To me, this obsession over race is focusing on a pimple over a cancerous tumor.”

But Lamar, the pastor in Washington, D.C., disagreed with Jackson, on both the issue of guns and race in America.

The solution isn’t guns for congregants, Lamar added — it’s about policy measures that he says continue to legitimize the oppression of black Americans.

“If a white boy can sit in a prayer room and whip out a gun and say ‘give us back our country, stop raping our women’ (words Roof allegedly uttered ahead of the killings), nothing has changed since ‘Birth of a Nation.’ He learned that from somewhere — this culture gave him that imagination,” Lamar said, referring to the 1915 film directed by D.W. Griffith that portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as heroes.

South Carolina Gov. “Nikki Haley said she doesn’t know where this comes from,” Lamar said. “Yes the hell you do. But to admit you know where is to admit the nation built its power on the backs of the people it enslaved.” It’s a power structure that continues to keep black people enslaved in other ways such as high incarceration rates, he said. 

What for Lamar is a symbol of the oppression of black Americans continues to fly over the Palmetto State's capitol.

“That same Confederate flag continues to fly in Columbia,” he said. “I’ve seen it.”

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